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Vacant Seats Intensify City Council Campaigns

By Harold Fox


The Cambridge City Council race is heating up as the candidates begin their final month of campaigning.

Of the 19 candidates vying for nine seats, seven are incumbents. This means that at least two slots are open for new members on Election Day, November 6.

As Cambridge faces the traffic congestion, open space depletion, and soaring housing costs that plague rapidly growing cities, the major issues are affordable housing and growth management.

Incumbents have advantage

Because of the format of City Council elections, name recognition plays a huge role in the outcome. None of the seven incumbents are expected to lose their seats.

The other important factor in the election is fund raising. In 1999, the year of the previous City Council election, the nine elected were also the top nine fundraisers.

These circumstances leave a large group of individuals shooting for just two spots opened up by the retirement of Councillors Kathleen Born and Jim Braude.

Brian Murphy, a Harvard graduate and former campaign manager who is running for public office for the first time, is an early leader. He has raised nearly $35,000 and has been endorsed by the liberal Cambridge Civic Association (CCA), the Lavender Alliance, and several local unions. Murphy bills himself as a “pragmatic progressive.”

Another candidate with an inside track is E. Denise Simmons. Currently a member of the school committee, she lists her ten years of experience working with the city council as an outstanding feature. She has raised nearly $30,000, and also has the CCA and Lavender Alliance endorsements.

Capitalizing on the success of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign in Cambridge, Green Party candidate Steve Iskovitz hopes to bring the Green vision to local politics. His platform includes the reenaction of rent control, promotion of clean transportation, and the preservation of parks and open spaces.

Running for the second time is Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority policeman Helder “Sonny” Peixoto. He is running an outspoken campaign which is focused on fighting for Cambridge’s poor and powerless. “I have a lot of the family vote: working mothers and low income people,” he said.

As a policeman, public safety is also high on his agenda. “If elected, the first thing I will do is remove the current police commissioner, Peixoto said. “He is not doing his job.”

Another prominent community activist is John Pitkin, currently president of the Mid-Cambridge Homeowners Association. He is running to set up a more organized city planning process focused on improving quality of life for Cambridge neighborhoods. “Without an overall approach, you can have developments like Kendall Square: cold streetscapes, huge buildings, and no open spaces,” he said.

Housing the biggest issue

All of the candidates acknowledge that the cost of housing is the primary issue facing Cambridge.

“You have families that have lived in the city for generations who can no longer afford to do so,” Murphy said. “It's a critical need of the city to maintain its economic diversity.”

A tool the Council can use is the Community Preservation Act, a ballot initiative that will be up for a vote in November. It lets the city levy a three percent surcharge on property taxes for use in subsidized rent, public housing, and other affordable housing programs. If Cambridge passes the initiative, it will also receive matching funds from the state.

Despite these measures, the candidates acknowledge that it is an uphill battle. “These programs don’t go very far to meet the problem,” Pitkin said. “They do a lot for a small number of people, but we need more broad-based programs that do a small amount for a larger group of people.”

The more radical Iskovitz would like to bring back rent control, which was abolished in 1995. Murphy takes a more practical, ad hoc approach. “I don’t think that that’s politically feasible right now,” he said. “It’s got to be done family-by-family.”

Another related issue is university expansion. “I have a major problem with Harvard University,” said Peixoto, referring to the school’s aggressive real estate acquisitions that have some local residents up in arms. The acquisitions have squeezed the housing market, and because Harvard doesn’t pay property taxes, many people feel that it isn’t making a fair contribution to the community. “Harvard is a 19 billion dollar corporation that needs to be reined in,” Peixoto said.

MIT students apathetic

MIT typically suffers from abysmal voter turnout. In 1999, the two precincts containing all of the student dormitories reported a mere 402 ballots, despite the candidacy of MIT student Eric C. Snowberg ’99.

Students’ lack of involvement has allowed City Councillors to safely ignore the interests of students. This has contributed to the closing of the Massachusetts Avenue firehouse serving MIT and the lack of bicycle paths around the campus.

The Council is elected by proportional representation. Voters rank their favorite candidates. To win, a candidate needs to be ranked in the top nine or ten on at least a tenth of the ballots. This approach ensures that minority constituencies can have a seat on the council. It also ensures a wild, wide-open race.

“The system of proportional representation means we are sort of flying blind,” Murphy said.

Voters must be U.S. citizens over the age of 18 and residents of Cambridge. They can register in person at the City Hall Annex on 51 Inman Street, or they can fill out mail-in registration forms available at any post office, public school or public library. The deadline for registering is October 19.

The MIT College Democrats will have a voter registration booth in Lobby 10 as the registration deadline approaches.